Crowd-funding is a great hustle. Remember a couple weeks ago when some dude threatened not to make potato salad unless we bought him a solid-gold pony with diamonds for eyes, and we actually went for it? Of course, many professional bloviators saw this as the exact moment when society’s collective handbasket landed in hell with a loud, hot thud, but I thought it was fantastic.
The success of the potato salad Kickstarter—currently some $61,000 above its $10 goal—isn’t just further proof that too many people have too much money. First of all, this isn’t the kind of thing a classically trained rich person throws money at. A bunch of the pledges surely came from nouveau oligarch tech weenies, sure, but I also like to imagine that plenty of regular people diverted $10 from their own pot-to-piss-in funds in the name of whimsy. So now a guy with an artfully expressed silly idea gets to drive a Maserati to the potato store. Fine by me.
I’m less sanguine about the sort of crowd-funding projects in which a guy who got rich selling shit to the public asks that same public to build him a new factory in which he can produce ever more shit to sell. Even when that shit is delicious Stone Brewing Company beer.
Escondido, Calif.-based Stone recently announced plans to build new breweries on the East Coast and in Berlin. This news has been widely reported on both the beer and business beats, and rightly so: Stone makes great beer and is an ideal candidate to be the first American brewery to open a fully independent outpost in Europe. (Brooklyn Brewery opened a Stockholm bureau in March, but they’re working with Carlsberg.) What got left out of a lot of these regurgitated press releases, though, is that Stone cofounder and CEO Greg Koch is trying to squeeze a million bucks out of his brewery’s fans via an IndieGoGo campaign.
There are a few different low-end baubles and high-end vacation packages for sale, but the backbone of this fundraising scheme is formed by $50 bottles of special-edition collaboration beers brewed with Baladin (from Italy), BrewDog (Scotland), and Dogfish Head/Victory, which is a clever ploy clearly aimed at the trophy hunters and first!ers who make up way too much of the craft-beer marketplace. It’s off to a sluggish start (about $81K as of this writing, with 25 days to get to $1 million), but I bet this succeeds, and Stone is admirably clear that the new breweries are getting built regardless: A measly million is only about four percent of the total they’re fixing to spend on the two-headed expansion.
I don’t think this gentle shakedown of their most loyal customers is evil by any means, because this is purely an opt-in situation. It’s not as if Stone is threatening to move their brewery if they don’t get a tax break. Furthermore, they’re not asking for straight donations: No beer is worth $50 (obviously, or this model wouldn’t work for Stone), but it’s not as if they’re asking you to trade a Grant for a handshake. You do get a rare beer.
But please don’t donate to this. Go spend the $50 on good beer from local upstarts. Opening a brewery is a risky proposition—there are currently over 3,000 in operation in the United States, up from a mid-1970s nadir of fewer than 100—but there won’t be that many in 10 years. The growth is unsustainable. So if you happen to enjoy the work of the new guy on your block—and there is a new guy on almost every block these days—help him grow the old-fashioned way by simply buying his wares.
Advances in both brewing technology and business planning have made brewery-ownership more accessible than ever for the little guy, but it’s still hard out there. There’s a very promising new operation called Aeronaut a few miles from my house; I went to their opening party last month and enjoyed most of the eight beers they had on tap. That’s right, they had eight distinct brews ready to go from the moment they opened the doors, because that’s what the modern good-beer drinker demands. Whereas first-generation craft stalwarts like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada could consolidate their resources and expertise into pumping out a single flagship offering in their early days, Aeronaut felt the need to open with not just their excellent pale ale, but also, among other things, two different hefeweizens (I prefer the filtered one) and an imperial stout (in June!?). That’s nuts. And it’s also great for me, which is why I’ve been back to fill my growler several times since. I hope they make it.
But not only is the explosion of new breweries unsustainable, it’s also unnecessary. Beer is the best. The absolute fucking best. But it’s also—psssssst—poison. Beer’s not good for you. It’s not always bad for you, either, and it’s no worse than tons of other consumer goods. Long live beer! But it’s unseemly when breweries, no matter how tiny or otherwise noble, try to co-opt the farmer’s-market ethos of “Yeah, we know our stuff’s a little pricey, but we’re essential for the community.”
I love good, local beer and I hope it never goes away. And I don’t deny that the brewing community seems like an uncommonly generous one, sponsoring all manner of 5Ks and park cleanups and the like. But commercial breweries are not themselves charitable endeavors. They make things to sell for a profit, and the things they make don’t always serve the greater good. Is it Harpoon’s fault that I had seven pints of their Rye IPA yesterday before coming home to start (and lose) an argument with my cat about free speech vis a vis a Law and Order: SVU rerun? Kinda! But I’m still very glad they exist, and I intend to keep expressing my gratitude by purchasing their beer.
Stone makes great beer. Their sublime and affordable Cali-Belgique IPA is one of the best expressions of a style I love (hoppy, Belgian-style American ale; Allagash Hugh Malone is 10 percent better for four times the price), and if we ever get around to a Drunkspin ranking of session IPAs, their Go-To is all but assured a Top 5 finish. There's a good reason Stone has lasted 18 years and become the 10th-largest craft brewer in America.
I wish Stone the best of luck with their new breweries, and I hope they do so well that they open one on my street. If they do, I promise to buy their beer every day. But crowd-funding campaigns for established, mainstream commercial operations are bullshit.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Art by Tara Jacoby.
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